In the 1970s, despairing over the fate of his art and his country, Leon Golub destroyed all of his paintings, wiping the slate clean. Born January 23, 1922, Golub underwent a second birth in that act, freeing himself to protest and document what he saw as the crimes against humanity committed by the United States of America. His Napalm Flag (above, from 1974) drenches the American flag metaphorically in the napalm used so mercilessly by the U.S. military in the Vietnam War. As Philip Guston targeted Richard Nixon through his art, Golub aimed more widely, targeting the whole dehumanizing process of war sanitized by the ideology of flags and nationality. From his great moment of doubt, Golub discovered a sense of purpose that would populate his art, sadly, for the next thirty years.
During the Reagan years of the 1980s, the era of Iran-Contra and Sandinistas, Golub turned his attention to the dynamics of terrorism and tourture. His Interrogation (above, from 1981) belongs to a whole suite of images of figures intimidating and torturing hooded victims. Although his figures are set in Central American conflicts, there’s a universality to Golub’s depictions that recall the brutality of the Nazis and presciently look ahead to the atrocities of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. In The Abu Ghraib Effect, Steven F. Eisenman cites Golub’s work as one of the few examples working against the prevalent ostensibly pro-torture history of Western art. (My review of The Abu Ghraib Effect is here.) Sadly, where Picasso could impact hearts and minds with his Guernica, Golub’s works never gained the recognition required to make a difference, robbed of the necessary oxygen by a media complicit in the injustices.
Before his death in 2004, Golub summed up the meaning of his work: "I'm not going to change our country. . . I'm not trying to influence people as much as trying to make a record. I like the notion of reportage. I hope that in 50 or 100 years from now my work will still be telling a record of what Americans were doing in terms of force, domination, world interest. It's not a large part of history, but it's a crucial part." I’m not sure if Golub never intended to make a difference or finally resigned himself to mere documentation, but he never stopped painting injustice. In The Black Does Not Interrupt the Killing (above, from 2002), Golub smears black paint over a scene of a gun-wielding man grasping the arm of an unseen figure, mimicking the American media’s ability to black out or cover over injustice done in the name of “homeland security” or “the war on terror.” Although Golub’s work has been nearly covered over in our time, I wouldn’t be surprised if many years from now, when the real histories of our era are written, he emerges as the Goya of late twentieth century America.